The Painted Veil Chapter 48

All the next day Kitty thought of the convent; and the morning after, early, soon after Walter had gone, taking the amah with her to get chairs, she crossed the river. It was barely day and the Chinese crowding the ferry boat, some in the blue cotton of the peasant, others in the black robes of respectability, had a strange look of the dead being borne over the water to the land of shadow. And when they stepped ashore they stood for a little at the landing-place uncertainly as though they did not quite know where to go, before desultorily, in twos and threes, they wandered up the hill.

At that hour the streets of the city were very empty so that more than ever it seemed a city of the dead. The passers-by had an abstracted air so that you might almost have thought them ghosts. The sky was unclouded and the early sun shed a heavenly mildness on the scene; it was difficult to imagine, on that blithe, fresh and smiling morn, that the city lay gasping, like a man whose life is being throttled out of him by a maniac’s hands, in the dark clutch of the pestilence. It was incredible that nature (the blue of the sky was clear like a child’s heart) should be so indifferent when men were writhing in agony and going to their death in fear. When the chairs were set down at the convent door a beggar arose from the ground and asked Kitty for alms. He was clad in faded and shapeless rags that looked as though he had raked them out of a muck-heap, and through their rents you saw his skin hard and rough and tanned like the hide of a goat; his bare legs were emaciated, and his head, with its shock of coarse grey hair (the cheeks hollow, the eyes wild), was the head of a madman. Kitty turned from him in frightened horror, and the chair-bearers in gruff tones bade him begone, but he was importunate, and to be rid of him, shuddering, Kitty gave him a few cash.

The door was opened and the amah explained that Kitty wished to see the Mother Superior. She was taken once more into the stiff parlour in which it seemed a window had never been opened, and here she sat so long that she began to think her message had not been delivered. At last the Mother Superior came in.

‘I must ask you to excuse me for keeping you waiting,’ she said. ‘I did not expect you and I was occupied.’

‘Forgive me for troubling you. I am afraid I have come at an inconvenient moment.’

The Mother Superior gave her a smile, austere but sweet, and begged her to sit down. But Kitty saw that her eyes were swollen. She had been weeping. Kitty was startled, for she had received from the Mother Superior the impression that she was a woman whom earthly troubles could not greatly move.

‘I am afraid something has happened,’ she faltered. ‘Would you like me to go away? I can come another time.’

‘No, no. Tell me what I can do for you. It is only – only that one of our Sisters died last night.’ Her voice lost its even tone and her eyes filled with tears. ‘It is wicked of me to grieve, for I know that her good and simple soul has flown straight to heaven; she was a saint; but it is difficult always to control one’s weakness. I am afraid I am not always very reasonable.’

‘I’m so sorry, I’m so dreadfully sorry,’ said Kitty.

Her ready sympathy brought a sob into her voice.

‘She was one of the Sisters who came out from France with me ten years ago. There are only three of us left now. I remember, we stood in a little group at the end of the boat (what do you call it, the bow?) and as we steamed out of the harbour at Marseilles and we saw the golden figure of Saint-Marie la Grace, we said a prayer together. It had been my greatest wish since I entered religion to be allowed to come to China, but when I saw the land grow distant I could not prevent myself from weeping. I was their Superior; it was not a very good example I was giving my daughters. And then Sister St. Francis Xavier – that is the name of the Sister who died last night – took my hand and told me not to grieve; for wherever we were, she said, there was France and there was God.’

That severe and handsome face was distorted by the grief which human nature wrung from her and by the effort to restrain the tears which her reason and her faith refused. Kitty looked away. She felt that it was indecent to peer into that struggle.

‘I have been writing to her father. She, like me, was her mother’s only daughter. They were fisher folk in Brittany, and it will be hard for them. Oh, when will this terrible epidemic cease? Two of our girls have been attacked this morning and nothing but a miracle can save them. These Chinese have no resistance. The loss of Sister St. Francis is very severe. There is so much to do and now fewer than ever to do it. We have Sisters at our other houses in China who are eager to come, all our Order, I think, would give anything in the world (only they have nothing) to come here; but it is almost certain death; and so long as we can manage with the Sisters we have I am unwilling that others should be sacrificed.’

‘That encourages me, ma mère; said Kitty. ‘I have been feeling that I had come at a very unfortunate moment. You said the other day that there was more work than the Sisters could do, and I was wondering if you would allow me to come and help them. I do not mind what I do if I can only be useful. I should be thankful if you just set me to scrub the floors.’

The Mother Superior gave an amused smile and Kitty was astonished at the mobile temperament which could so easily pass from mood to mood.

‘There is no need to scrub the floors. That is done after a fashion by the orphans.’ She paused and looked kindly at Kitty. ‘My dear child, do you not think that you have done enough in coming with your husband here? That is more than many wives would have had the courage to do, and for the rest how can you be better occupied than in giving him peace and comfort when he comes home to you after the day’s work? Believe me, he needs then all your love and all your consideration.’

Kitty could not easily meet the eyes which rested on her with a detached scrutiny and with an ironical kindliness.

‘I have nothing whatever to do from morning till night,’ said Kitty. ‘I feel that there is so much to be done that I cannot bear to think that I am idle. I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself, and I know that I have no claim either on your kindness or on your time, but I mean what I say and it would be a charity that you were doing me if you would let me be of some help to you.’

‘You do not look very strong. When you did us the pleasure of coming to see us the day before yesterday it seemed to me that you were very pale. Sister St. Joseph thought that perhaps you were going to have a baby.’

‘No, no,’ cried Kitty, flushing to the roots of her hair.

The Mother Superior gave a little, silvery laugh.

‘It is nothing to be ashamed of, my dear child, nor is there anything improbable in the supposition. How long have you been married?’

‘I am very pale because I am naturally pale, but I am very strong, and I promise you I am not afraid of work.’

Now the Superior was complete mistress of herself. She assumed unconsciously the air of authority which was habitual to her and she held Kitty in an appraising scrutiny. Kitty felt unaccountably nervous.

‘Can you speak Chinese?’

‘I’m afraid not,’ answered Kitty.

‘Ah, that is a pity. I could have put you in charge of the elder girls. It is very difficult just now, and I am afraid they will get – what do you call? Out of hand?’ she concluded with a tentative sound.

‘Could I not be of help to the Sisters in nursing? I am not at all afraid of the cholera. I could nurse the girls or the soldiers.’

The Mother Superior, unsmiling now, a reflective look on her face, shook her head.

‘You do not know what the cholera is. It is a dreadful thing to see. The work in the infirmary is done by soldiers and we need a Sister only to supervise. And so far as the girls are concerned . . . no, no, I am sure your husband would not wish it; it is a terrible and frightening sight.’

‘I should grow used to it.’

‘No, it is out of the question. It is our business and our privilege to do such things, but there is no call for you to do so.’

‘You make me feel very useless and very helpless. It seems incredible that there should be nothing that I can do.’

‘Have you spoken to your husband of your wish?’


The Mother Superior looked at her as though she were delving into the secrets of her heart, but when she saw Kitty’s anxious and appealing look she gave a smile.

‘Of course you are a Protestant?’ she asked.


‘It doesn’t matter. Dr. Watson, the missionary who died, was a Protestant, and it made no difference. He was all that was most charming to us. We owe him a deep debt of gratitude.’

Now the flicker of a smile passed over Kitty’s face, but she did not say anything. The Mother Superior seemed to reflect. She rose to her feet.

‘It is very good of you. I think I can find something for you to do. It is true that now Sister St. Francis has been taken from us, it is impossible for us to cope with the work. When will you be ready to start?’


‘A la bonne heure. I am content to hear you say that.’

‘I promise you I will do my best. I am very grateful to you for the opportunity that you are giving me.’

The Mother Superior opened the parlour door, but as she was going out she hesitated. Once more she gave Kitty a long, searching and sagacious look. Then she laid her hand gently on her arm.

‘You know, my dear child, that one cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.’

Kitty gave a little start, but the Mother Superior passed swiftly out.